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Feds Back Protecting Wild Runs of Salmon

by Joe Rojas-Burke
The Oregonian, May 15, 2004

An NOAA spokesman says counting hatchery fish
will not lead to wholesale de-listing of endangered fish

Against mounting fears that the Endangered Species Act was itself in peril, the Bush administration Friday pledged to maintain its tough protections of depleted Northwest salmon stocks.

The move follows the disclosure in recent weeks that the U.S. government is drafting a new salmon plan in which hatchery fish -- turned out by the millions every year -- will be counted along with wild fish before deciding whether wild fish need protection under the ESA.

The shift raised basic questions about what a wild creature is -- and the role of the act. And it challenged the underpinnings of the Northwest's $700 million-a-year effort to rebuild salmon runs, depleted by loss of habitat to hydroelectric dams, logging, mining, and farm and urban development.

Conrad Lautenbacher of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration spoke for the Bush administration, saying he wanted to correct "erroneous accounts of how our hatchery policy will be used." He said the "central tenet" of the government's hatchery policy is conservation of naturally-spawning salmon and their ecosystems.

"Consideration of hatchery fish does not lead to wholesale de-listing of species as some are claiming," Lautenbacher wrote in a letter Friday to the senators and members of Congress from Oregon, Washington, Idaho, California and Alaska.

While welcoming the message, wildlife advocates said they remain concerned about potential long-term consequences of the government's belief in hatcheries as part of the effort to aid wild fish.

"It's hard to predict where it's going to go," said Jeff Curtis, a Portland-based representative of Trout Unlimited. He said reliance on hatchery salmon could lead the government to ease restrictions on timber cutting, dam operations, and other habitat protections.

And farm groups and developers facing restrictions on water withdrawals and land use imposed for ESA-protected salmon also showed concern.

"The Bush administration is concerned about looking politically correct," said Darryll Olsen, with the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association. "The heart of the issue, at least in our mind, is how much impact does the mainstem hydro-system have on salmon fisheries at this time. We would say it is very minor. They are responding to political pressure."

  Average (1994-1999)
Direct Mortality Fall Chinook Spring Chinook Steelhead
Columbia/Snake Dams
(8 dams)
12% 20% 17%
Columbia/Snake Reservoirs
(8 reservoirs)
81% 40% 41%
Columbia/Snake Rivers
(8 dams & 8 reservoirs)
93% 60% 58%
Lower Snake River
(4 dams & 4 reservoirs)
72% 30% 29%
Columbia River
(4 dams & 4 reservoirs)
21% 30% 29%
Columbia/Snake Rivers
(8 dams & 8 reservoirs)
93% 60% 58%
Indirect Mortality ? ? ?

-- National Marine Fisheries Service, December 21, 2000 (more)
Lautenbacher said science, not politics, is driving agency decisions about the role of hatcheries. He said well-managed conservation hatcheries are fostering recovery of salmon, some hatcheries are having little or no effect, "and some hatcheries potentially hinder recovery."

Lautenbacher said the agency has "preliminarily determined" to maintain protections for at least 25 of the 26 salmon stocks now listed under the Endangered Species Act. A NOAA spokeswoman said the status of mid-Columbia River steelhead remains undecided.

Suit challenged listings

NOAA's fisheries service began revising its hatchery policy in 2001, after losing a lawsuit brought by property owners and fishing guides who challenged the listing of coho salmon. U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan of Eugene said the agency erred when it excluded several hatchery stocks from federal protections given to the wild population of Oregon coast coho salmon.

NOAA decided to review all salmon listing decisions and to adjust its policy for considering hatchery fish in making those decisions.

Native American tribes with treaty rights to salmon have said the proposed changes move more in line with their vision for salmon recovery. The tribes co-manage salmon fisheries and hatchery operations throughout the basin and have long advocated greater use of hatcheries.

"There was a lot of nearly hysterical reaction to the leaked draft policy," said Charles Hudson, a spokesman for the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission, which represents four tribes. "A careful read of it shows fairly minor adjustments to the way hatcheries are going to be considered," he said.

"One of the primary tools to maintain populations, to keep fish in the river, is through hatchery production and supplementing natural runs with properly managed hatchery fish," Hudson said. It looks to us that this policy gives us more flexibility to do that."

Hatchery role questioned

Some scientists and conservationists said the government is overstating the case for hatcheries.

"To say that they are speeding recovery -- that's a stretch at best," said Joe Whitworth, executive director of Oregon Trout.

Jim Lichatowich, an independent fishery biologist, said basic questions about hatcheries remain unanswered.

"Is it possible, in a hatchery environment, to artificially propagate a fish that is equivalent to a wild fish?" he said. "That is still the subject of scientific debate, it needs to be resolved through long term experiments and long-term evaluation."

Kirsten Boyles, an attorney with Earthjustice in Seattle, said the full legal consequences won't be clear until the government releases the full hatchery policy and assessments of salmon stocks for public comment in two weeks.

Joe Rojas-Burke
Feds Back Protecting Wild Runs of Salmon
The Oregonian, May 15, 2004

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